Notes on Photography, Power, and Insurgent Looks

by Stefanie Fock

[This intervention is part of Abolition’s inaugural issue.]

On July 8, 2015, twenty-eight year old Çilem Doğan got arrested in Adana, Turkey, after she had shot her ex-husband who had repeatedly abused her and tried to force her into prostitution. For their coverage of this case, Turkish and international media repeatedly reproduced a photograph in which Çilem Doğan is represented in between two police officers, handcuffed, but giving two thumbs up to the camera. While there is contradictory information about the date and incident of this shot,[1] there seems to be a general agreement on the message communicated through it—Çilem Doğan does not regret her actions. The meaning of this conclusion, however, has been at least two-foldly interpreted. While the photograph has, on the one hand, been used to highlight the image of the unrepentant female murderer, on the other hand, it has been appropriated and widely spread as a symbol of feminist empowerment.

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Photo of Çilem Doğan’s arrest (screenshot from twitter – original photo by DHA)

When I first looked at this photograph, my eyes confronted it in the latter sense. My body was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of satisfaction that recurs every time I look at this picture in which I neither see a victim nor a perpetrator, but an empowered survivor. Even though (or exactly because) it implicates pain, grief, and rage this photo is encouraging. In Turkey and beyond it has caused a noisy echo of people claiming Çilem Doğan’s release, and speaking up against gender violence, femicide, and the criminalization of women’s self-defensive actions. For me the photograph has also been inspiring to reconsider the power inherent to photography, to think through the political relations that characterize photographs, and to deliberate about the transformative potential of insurgent ways of looking.

Hence, in the following I will not undertake an in-depth engagement with the history that made Çilem Doğan kill, or with the claim to abolish murder charges for survivors of gender violence. Instead of focusing on the event the photographer sought to register, I intend to use the photograph to approach a political understanding of photography itself. For this purpose I resort to parts of Ariella Azoulay’s writings on the question of what photography is.[2]

Azoulay (2010a; 2011; 2014) deals with photography as an event which is triggered off by the camera, but does not necessarily lead to the existence of a photographic picture. Producing, distributing, and consuming photos is but one part of a sequence of diverse actions encompassed by the term photography. A camera always influences a given situation, but there is not always a visual outcome of the event of photography, or at least not for everybody. Often the photographed persons are not the ones to see the photo, and even if the camera is actually switched off and no pictures taken, people still experience photography. However, when the photographic act results in a photograph, the encounter with it unfolds the event of photography.

“Photography is an apparatus of power that cannot be reduced to any of its components: a camera, a photographer, a photographed environment, person, or spectator” (Azoulay, 2014, 85). The event of photography takes place as an encounter between people, between people and the camera, and between people and the photograph. The latter is a testimony to the moment when photographer, photographed person and camera encountered one another; a moment in which none of the participants holds the absolute power to determine the meaning of the visual outcome. The aim of this understanding of photography is neither to downplay the privileged position commonly occupied by photographers nor to minimize their responsibility of defining the boundary of the photograph. Nevertheless, “s/he alone does not determine what will be inscribed in the frame and what might be reconstructed from it regarding the situation photographed” (Azoulay, 2010a, 12).

To unsettle the long-standing notion that the photographer is the only and individual author of a photograph means to open up the possibility to consider and to use photography as an instrument that employs power to photographed persons and spectators. “Photography is a form of relation that exists and becomes valid only within and between the plurality of individuals who take part in it” (Azoulay, 2014, 85). To entitle the power that is in the hands of all participants of the photographic act means to consider the agency of the photographed persons who often participate actively, even if they did not give their consent to be converted into a picture in the first place. In addition, it points to the chance and the responsibility of the spectator to transform photography “from a simple, convenient, efficient, (relatively) inexpensive and easily operable tool for the production of pictures into a social, cultural, and political instrument of immense power” (129).

In order to make photography practical for political intervention, it is indispensable to understand that the reality supposedly captured by the photographer and authentically reproduced by the camera is, in practice, produced through the event of photography. The idea that a photograph contains meaning in itself has to be abandoned. Pictures neither speak for themselves, nor do they hold a single or stable point of view. They allow negotiations about the matter they indicate, because what is visible is not innate to the picture, but projected into it. This is why Azoulay requests not to treat photographs as the final product of a finite photographic act, but as a practice. “[A photo] is in fact a new beginning that lacks any predictable end. [… It] acts, thus making others act. The ways in which its action yields others’ action, however, is unpredictable” (ibid.). Such a vantage point enables imagining that change can be achieved through an insurgent way of looking that resists subordination under a dominant regime of perception.[3]

According to Azoulay (2014, 18), a first step towards change consists in altering the question of what I am looking at when regarding a photograph in order to foreground why the photographed persons are looking at me. With this objective I now want to look again at the photo of Çilem Doğan. My look fades out the background and concentrates on the three women at the forefront. The two at the outside wear police uniforms, while Çilem Doğan appears handcuffed in their middle. The officer at the left links arms with her, a presumably cozy gesture which seems strange due to the arrest situation. All three women actively participated in the photographic act when they refused to look at the camera. All three decided to look at the ground, but the detainee kept her head erect, while the police officers (incidentally or deliberately) dropped theirs with the strange visual effect of delegating prominence to Çilem Doğan. The latter especially highlighted her active participation in the creation of her picture when she lifted up her two thumbs.

This gesture illustrates Azoulay’s (2014, 129) assertion that the production of a photograph “is created and inspired by a relation of an external eye.” By giving two thumbs to the camera Çilem Doğan addressed a hypothetical community of spectators whose interest in the picture could lead to responsibility towards her, and, at best, to action against the ongoing violence many women are experiencing. Even without her directly looking at me, her consent to be transformed into a picture becomes visible through her interaction with the camera. With her upraised thumbs she seems to say ‘yes, take my picture’, and furthermore, ‘yes, I did it, everything is okay.’ She transformed the photographic event into a moment of recognition of her actions, desiring to be seen as a law-breaker who did not resist the arrest but the possibility that her agency could remain unnoticed. By means of her re-action facing the arrest and the photoshoot she foreclosed the risk of being (visually) victimized.

Çilem Doğan reinforced her publicly performed self-assurance when telling police: “Will women always die? Let some men die too. I killed him for my honor.”[4] Through her acting in front of the camera, she translated this powerful exclamation into a use of photography as a political instrument. As if she consciously prepared for her photographic staging before she actually encountered the photographer and the camera, the T-shirt she wears in the photo underlines her corporal resolve: Dear past, thanks for all the lessons. Dear future, I am ready! The recent past: resisting the violent acts of her husband. The immediate future: prison. For the court, the photo contains the potential to use it as visual evidence in order to criminalize the detainee because of her lack of regret, an often aggravating argument with regard to charges. In many cases, the textual embedding of the picture in mass media can be read as the attempt to strengthen such an image of the unrepentant female murderer who, on top of everything, became “an Internet sensation” (Habib, 2015).[5]

For their book ‘Don’t let your eyelash fall to ground: Women Look For Their Lives’, Feminist Group Istanbul collected reports of “women who had to kill/injure man in order to not get killed, […] and not remained silent to the extent that these have been reflected in the media” (ÇT/DG, 2016). As they explain, the big problem has been not to be able to include all those stories of women who have not made it into the news, although they come up every day. The stories of women who kill their husbands to stay alive, raise the question “of whether they would have killed if they had received effective protection from authorities after seeking help against their abusers” (Hurtas, 2016). Also on Çilem Doğan it is reported that she sought institutional help several times. During her closing statement at the trial she declared: “I never wanted this to happen, but I had no other option”, and she refused to be seen as a murderer, claiming her right to self-defense (ibid).

This is why she is ‘looking’ at me. Like the photographed persons in many other photos, she saw both the photographer facing her and the participation in the photographic act “as a framework that offer[ed] an alternative—weak though it may be—to the institutional structures that have abandoned and injured [her …]” (Azoulay, 2014, 18). The clear link between self-defense, breach of law, and conscious participation in the photographic act shows that Çilem Doğan assumed the existence of a community of spectators who claims “to enact photography free of governmental power and even against it, if it inflicts injury on others […]” (105).

Obviously, the unequal relation of Çilem Doğan to the power that governs her cannot easily be overcome beyond the event of photography. Ultimately, an insurgent way of looking cannot prevent her incarceration, because it neither takes the sovereign patriarchal power off the state and its legal institutions nor directly changes the realities of gender-based violence. Still, ever since Çilem Doğan participated in the photographic act, her picture has been acting and yielded the action of others’.

Women’s rights activists have rallied behind Doğan, calling for her acquittal and insisting that self-defense is a legitimate right. Every hearing during her trial was accompanied by demonstrations; letters of support flooded in to Doğan while she was in jail. A petition campaign calling for her acquittal has gathered more than 130,000 signatures. The T-shirt Doğan happened to be wearing on the day of her arrest has become a symbol in the struggle for women’s rights. According to Doğan’s lawyers, the T-shirt […]will be put on display at the Women’s Library in Adana” (Hurtas, 2016).

Just as the T-shirt itself, the photograph in which Çilem Doğan is wearing it has become a symbol of Turkish feminist movements. It presents an important example of empowering modes of visually representing women who experience and resist gender violence. To deconstruct normative images of women’s social roles by creating non-victimized representations of survivors of gender violence, forms a powerful part of transforming insurgent looks into action. In this process, photography can play an important role, not because of the false assumption that photographs can be in themselves insurgent, but because the event of photography is not dictated by the ruling power, even if the ruling power attempts to control it.

While I was preparing this article, there has been news about Çilem Doğan. As reported in the media, and posted on Twitter by supporters, on June 8, 2016 she was sentenced to life imprisonment for premeditated murder. Her lawyer pleaded before the court that Doğan should not be sentenced to any jail time as she had killed her ex-husband out of self-defense, but the claim was denied. Finally, her sentence was decreased to 18 and then to 15 years due to ‘unjust provocation’ and ‘good conduct’, and on June 20, 2016 she was released on bail. Doğan’s attorney Hacıvelioğlu has noted that they will request a trial before the Supreme Court, and “launch a campaign to appear together with all women in the hearing […] and show that we stand by Çilem’” (Kural, 2016).

The woman in the picture I used for generating a political understanding of the event of photography is sentenced for murder, but (visually) refuses to recognize this verdict’s legitimacy. Paraphrasing Azoulay (2010b), against the potential use of such a photo to criminalize Çilem Doğan, the insurgent look should keep it open as a photographic event that might criminalize the current laws as illegitimate state tools regarding the situation of women who resist gender-based violence.

About the author: Stefanie Fock is currently and independently active as a photographer, visual educator, and researcher with a focus on questions of gender, racism and visual cultureSince 2012 she has guided the project Gender as Collage, and in 2015 she co-founded Nómadas Visuales, a collective dedicated to the creation of spaces of collaborative learning in photography and visual investigationFor more of her work, see https://stefaniefock.wordpress.com

 

Bibliography

Azoulay, Ariella, 2014. The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books  [2nd edition].

-2011. On Photography. In Maf’teakh. Lexical Review of Political Thought. Issue 2e – Winter, 65 – 80. On http://mafteakh.tau.ac.il/en/ [last access: July 26, 2016]

-2010a. What is a photograph? What is photography? In Philosophy of Photography, Vol. 1, No 1.

-2010b. What is photography. On http://cargocollective.com/AriellaAzoulay/What-is-photography [last access: July 26, 2016].

Bal, Mieke, 2003. Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture. In Journal of Visual Culture, Vol, 2, No. 5, 5 – 32.

Silverman, Kaja, 1996. The Threshold of the Visible World. New York/London: Routledge.

 

Newspapers and Internet Sources

ÇT/DG. Women Kill 2 Men, Injure 2 Others Inflicting Violence on Them in March, May 9, 2016, on http://bianet.org/english/women/174570-women-kill-2-men-injure-2-others-inflicting-violence-on-them-in-march [last access: July 26, 2016].

Habib, Rashell. Turkish woman kills her abusive husband, becomes an internet sensation, July 15, 2015, on http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/turkish-woman-kills-her-abusive-husband-becomes-an-internet-sensation/news-story/50ba3fb43216e0cf3b8e75e10931d0ed [last access: July 26, 2016].

Hürriyet Daily News-1. Turkish woman who killed husband has ‘no regret’, July 9, 2015,  on http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-woman-who-killed-husband-has-no-regret.aspx?pageID=238&nID=85232&NewsCatID=509 [last access: July 26, 2016].

Hürriyet Daily News-2. Court denies self defense plea, sentences ‘abused’ wife for murder, June 8, 2016,  on http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/court-denies-self-defense-plea-sentences-abused-wife-for-murder-of-husband.aspx?PageID=238&NID=100236&NewsCatID=339%20 [last%20access:%20July%2026,%202016].

Hurtas, Sibel.Why Turkish women are rallying behind this killer. In Al Monitor. The Pulse of the Middle East, June 23, 2016, on http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/turkey-women-rights-violence-abusive-husband.html [last access: July 26, 2016].

Kural, Beyza. Çilem Doğan Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison, June 8, 2016, on http://bianet.org/english/women/175641-cilem-dogan-sentenced-to-15-years-in-prison [last access: July 26, 2016].

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cilemdogan [last access: July 26, 2016].

Endnotes:

[1]  Several sources say that the photograph was taken when Çilem Doğan got arrested at her father’s house in Adana. The Hürriet Daily News, however, explains that the shot shows the moment when the detainee was carried to the courthouse for medical checks the day after her arrest. See Hürriet Daily News-1, 2015.

[2]  It is important to clarify that the kind of photography Ariella Azoulay (2014, 85) is concerned with is one “in which photographs [of people] are taken on the verge of catastrophe”.

[3]  The theory Ariella Azoulay lays out in writings like The Civil Contract of Photography (2014) deals with the relation of photography and citizenship in disaster contexts, and is hence far more complex than my reference to her definition of photography as an event. Based on the Israeli-Palestinian context the author is coming from, her idea of a civil contract of photography creates the possibility to overcome a concept of citizenship which is limited by the nation-state. She introduces a “new [deterritorialized] conceptualization of citizenship as a framework of partnership and solidarity among those who are governed [citizens and noncitizens], a framework that is neither constituted nor circumscribed by the sovereign” (23). For her approach to the ethics of the spectator as a crucial component of the civil contract of photography, she presents the notion of the civic space of the gaze and underlines the importance of rethinking our interrelation with it. In this article I will not go into her particular idea of the photographic citizenry in detail, and I do not adopt her notion of the civic. Nevertheless, besides other theories on the productivity of the act of looking (e.g. Bal, 2004; Silverman, 1996), Azoulay’s civil imagination has influenced my thoughts on the transformative potential of insurgent looks. It could certainly be an enriching task to broaden the discussion of the photograph of Çilem Doğan in terms of the civil contract of photography. Especially, because of Azoulay’s concern over the vulnerable citizenship and sexual abandonment of women that leads her to question if the lack of visibility of the event of rape precludes the possibility to see and treat it as a human disaster.

[4]  This statement has been quoted in each and every article about the case of  Çilem Doğan, as well as used by feminist approaches to her acts on twitter and other social networks.

[5]  Nevertheless, by reproducing Çilem Doğan’s words and pictures also mass media have seen themselves forced to write about the possible apprehension of the killing of an abusive husband as a legitimate form of self-defense, although they usually reported on it in an ambivalent way.

 

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